Songwriting: When the words work
September 16, 2010
What makes a song great? What makes a great song? It can be anything – the bass line or the way the singer phrases certain words, the title or a striking chord progression or a rhyming pattern. Or none of those things, but the inexplicable, even miraculous chemistry of melody, voice, beat, instruments, phrases and story.Following is a selection of some songs that have stuck in my mind, and a brief commentary on why they have.”Wilco (the Song)” (Wilco): This starts off as a downer – “Do you dabble in depression?” – but becomes a bold reassurance that Wilco (the band), or your record collection, or maybe even one little three-minute rock song, will swoop in and save your life. And then there’s the title, a great one. I love songs about music; John Hiatt is real good at those.”In My Life” (Lennon/McCartney): The interplay between major and minor keys is unique, and reflects the song’s bittersweet sentiments.”Come a Long Way” (Michelle Shocked): A colorful travelogue through Los Angeles; the accelerating delivery of the words echoes a speeding motorcycle ride through the city. Not that it has anything to do with songwriting, but it’s got a great video.”Visions of Johanna” (Bob Dylan): “Lights flicker from the opposite loft/ In this room the heat pipes just cough/ The country music station plays soft but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off” – the most evocative lines I’ve ever heard in music. Apparently I’m not the only one. A few years ago – in a jazz magazine – a small handful of musicians were asked to name the greatest song. More than one picked “Visions.””Henry” (Keb’ Mo’): An impressionistic telling of how Taj Mahal (real name: Henry Saint Clair Fredericks) inspired the young Keb’ Mo’, that touches on the blues, the South, destiny, memory and redemption.”A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke): This song of protest and faith was perfectly in tune with its times – it was released in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement – and still sounds ominous and potent. Aaron Neville’s version always puts a chill down my back.”Mission in the Rain” (Garcia/Hunter): The slow, minor-key intro finds a guy at the end of the line, but ready for transcendence; he finds at least a glimpse of it, walking the streets of San Francisco.”Here in the World” (Dan Sheridan): Knee-buckling melody, and I love that when the Aspenite sings the line, “By the meadow museum,” you know just where that image comes from.”The Maker” (Daniel Lanois): Among the singers who have covered this tale of faith, filled with Biblical imagery, are Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris and the Neville Brothers.
John Oates, musician: “Gold Heart Locket” (written by Jeff Black; performed by Sam Bush on the “Circles Around Me” album): The marriage of music and lyric is what always attracts me. Here Jeff Black weaves a narrative of longing and love’s power to overcome the metaphorical forces of nature. The purity and simplicity of the musical accompaniment perfectly frames the words and the result is a timeless, moving and evocative song.Gram Slaton, Wheeler Opera House executive director: “Winter” (Rolling Stones): From “Goats Head Soup” – bad album, terrible follow-up to “Exile On Main Street,” but “Winter” is a gem and catches Mick Jagger at his Van Morrison finest, wistful and mature and longing for someone who has touched him deeply. So when he keens/sings “Sometimes I just want to keep you warm, and sometimes I want to wrap my coat around you,” you get a side of a man that is so unexpectedly vulnerable. Of course, it’s all in the interpretation of the song, and this time Jagger lets his guard down. Never happened again.John McEuen, musician: “Layla” (Derek and the Dominos): The piano solo by drummer Jim Gordon is a great segue from lyric to instrumental on a song that still is great to hear, that captures a time and story that is suspended within itself in some imaginary plane of love lost and won.Barry Smith, humorist: “Cucamonga” (Frank Zappa): A beautiful, musical tale of living the life you want to live, with cool harmonica.Scott Boberg, Aspen Art Museum education curator: “Map Ref. 41N 93W” (Wire): I always sing along to this song, amazed that a quirky, infectiously catchy pop song about cartography by a post-punk British band could use the phrase ‘longitude and latitude’ in a chorus and make it work.Josh Behrman, event producer: “Terrapin Station” (Garcia/Hunter): “Inspiration, move me brightly/ Light the song with sense and color, hold away despair/ More than this I will not ask, face with mysteries dark and vast/ Statements just seem vain at last” – it defines our quest for life and its secretsJeff Black, musician: ” Then Came The Children” (Paul Siebel): In its graceful essence, in its dichotomy, this song has always haunted me. The line, “You can teach us how to love and live and tie bright ribbons in our hair,” is a constant reminder that we, the alleged adults, are taught over and over, and not the other way around.Mike Miracle, Aspen Sojourner magazine editor-in-chief: “Seven Curses” (Bob Dylan): In nine verses (or about 260 words), Dylan crafts a tale of a daughter’s affection for her father and of a black-hearted judge who takes advantage of that love. Heart-wrenching and beautifully efficient.Jeff Barry, songwriter: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon): One of the hardest things to do is find a new way to say the same old thing.Kate Micucci & Riki Lindhome, musicians who perform as Garfunkel & Oates: “She’s Gone” (Hall and Oates): It is a classic heartbreak song that uses the words carbon and monoxide so firstname.lastname@example.org